Marseille is the second largest city in France after Paris, the capital of Provence, and the oldest city in France. It has a reputation of being crowded and a little rough around the edges but there are a lot of amazing things do to in Marseille.
From its dazzling old harbour to the legendary Chateau d’If, Marseille this Mediterranean City should not be missed when visiting France.
What to do in Marseille
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Our first impression of Marseilles was a busy one. We drove in on a Friday evening during rush hour and the confusion and traffic was unbearable.
We almost decided to drive right on through town and leave the hustle and bustle behind.
But I’m glad we stayed to explore all the things to do in Marseilles?
Old Harbour – Vieux Port
Marseilles has turned out to be one of our favorite cities in France. The port of Marseille dates back to 600 BC!
Located on the Gulf of Lyon, it is also the busiest port on the Mediterranean. Just look at all those boats !
The old port of Marseilles is stunning and filled with a raw energy that you would expect from a lively port town.
We could imagine what it was like back in the 17th Century when schooners would come into port filled with sailors. And it feels like it hasn’t changed a bit.
Surrounded by historic buildings, the port feels as if it has stood still in time.
The old fort stands proudly at the water’s edge and the cathedrals look down over the square.
Other than the slick bistros and cafes lining the boulevards, it looks as if it could be the setting for an old pirate movie.
We grabbed a spot on an outdoor patio to enjoy mussels and fries with some sparkling wine, taking in the energy of the waterfront.
Marseille is the setting for this famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo written by Alexander Dumas. But Chateau d’If is not a fictional location.
Poor Edmond Dantes was sent to the prison island of Chateau d’If where he spent 14 years suffering in the hands of his tormentors before escaping and taking his revenge.
It is very real and stands just off the coast of Marseille in the Mediterranean Sea.
Originally built as a fortress, Chateau d’if was later used as a prison for political prisoners. A dreary place where poor souls lived out their days with no chance of escape.
You can take a tour out to Chateau d’If and it makes for a very interesting and pleasant afternoon.
Take a walk through the cells of famous political prisoners and see how they lived. Surprisingly, the cells of Chateau d’If were quite large.
The higher-ranking prisoners paid for better cells that were spacious and even had fire places.
The poor prisoners were condemned to the lower dungeons which were intolerable and we were not able to see.
- €10 will get you a seat on the 20-minute ferry ride out to the island. You will have to pay another 5 € once you arrive at Chateau d’If to see the sites.
- It is a little pricey but the boat ride is beautiful and the prison tour is fascinating.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Paris isn’t the only city with Notre Dame. Marseille city has its own Notre Dame standing high on a hill top keeping watch on its ships.
La Bonne Mère is a great place to head up for views of the city of Marseille and its port.
The steep walk up 150 meters is worth it but if you don’t want to walk, you can catch the tourist train up to see the views and the giant gilded statue of the virgin Mary.
Arrive early to beat the rush of tourists as it is Marseille’s most famous attraction.
Marseille Cathedral – Cathédrale de la Major
When visiting Europe, we always find our religion (well, at least an interest in seeing its monuments) Cathédrale de la Major is a beautiful monument on the waterfront dating back to the 19th century.
Like many of the buildings in Marseille, The Cathedral blends Romanesque and Byzantine styles. It is a massive cathedral spanning 141 meters (462 feet). Its dome towers reach a height of 16 meters (52 feet)
This cathedral reminded us of the Duomo in Florence, but with a far more beautiful setting.
Mucem – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean
It is fitting that this museum stands in one of Europe’s oldest cities. The Mucem – Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée is a sharp contrast to the historic architecture lining the waterfront.
Built between land and sea, Mucem, is located beside Fort Saint-Jean bringing life to the area.
While the museum is dedicated to the history of European civilization, it is the building itself that has caught the attention of tourists.
It is the newest of Marseille tourist attractions and is quickly becoming the most popular too.
When visiting Europe, we always love getting lost in the old towns of its historic cities. And Marseille is no different. Le Panier, The Old Quarter dates back to 600 BC when the Greeks settled in these parts.
The narrow cobblestone streets lined with colourful shuddered windows makes for a lovely walk through the daily lives of the locals.
Parc National des Calanques
A good day trip from Marseille is Calanques National Park. It is the only national park in Europe that is located near urban areas and is both land and sea. It is located directly beside Marseilles en route to Cassis.
It is a large park at 520 square km (201 square miles) and it most certainly looks like something from the Greek Islands.
Take a boat ride to see the stunning coast and hidden fishing villages that line the shore.
It was designated a national park in 2012 and has great hiking trails and areas for kayaking and exploring the limestone cliffs and quiet coves.
A great way to see the park is to book a catamaran tour to Calanques National Park. This 5-hour tour goes along the coast between the town of Cassis, La Madrague, Les Goudes and Callelongue.
History Museum – Musée d’Histoire de Marseille
Palais Longchamp is a monument that was built to celebrate the completion of a long canal supplying the city with water.
It is a large green space with interconnected parks. It houses the Museum of Fine Arts dating back to 1801 and it is also home to the Natural History Museum.
Marseilles was lovely and anyone going to the south of France should make it a stop on their list. It is filled with history, beautiful architecture and parks.
You will see chic residents walking down the boulevard or trendy bohemians lounging in the park.
We wanted to be those cool people that live in the city of Marseille, but instead we had to be content to be visitors in this ultra cool land on the warm Mediterranean coast.
Where to Stay in Marseille
We had a car rental so we were very mobile in Marseille and had the freedom to stay outside the city while traveling on a Budget. When driving through Europe, we often stay at Ibis or Etap hotels.
But other places to stay in Marseille
Vieux Port – The best area to stay in Marseille is the Old Port. It is centrally located and easy to see most of the top Marseille attractions. It can be quite noisy and busy though.
Le Panier – The Old Town is another great option in the second arrondissement. Not far from the Old Port, there are several choices of accommodation. made up of three areas in Marseille and this is a good option for a quieter stay than the old port. Les Grands Carmes, Town Hall, and La Joliette.
Train Station – This is a good option that is a more affordable area, but it is still easy to get around. We stayed at the Ibis Hotel and found it to be quite pleasant.
- Check out prices and availability on TripAdvisor
Getting Around Marseille
We had a car while visiting Marseille, but traffic was busy, so we parked it an mostly walked.
If you don’t want to walk, a Marseille City Pass is a great option. It lets you you Ride Marseille’s public transport for free.
Passes can be bought for 24, 48 or 72 hour and cover:
- Free access to Marseille’s museums including – the Marine Museum, Natual History Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Palais Longchamp and more.
- A Ride on the train to Notre-Dame de la Garde or le Panier old town
- Get tastings and discounts in certified boutiques.